Formless Daydreams: A Short Story

Standing inside the lone convenience store near my school, I shift my weight from my right foot to my left, then back to my right. I juggle the items in my hands – a carton of milk, a bag of vegetable chips, and a chocolate bar – and check my watch for the twentieth time. The line in front of me isn’t becoming any less long, and I’m starting to feel nervous. If I miss my train… well, it wouldn’t be good, I’ll just put it that way. My mother would have a fit.

I fidget for a while and look aimlessly out the store window. Two school-age girls, an elderly man, and a small boy get in the line behind me. We inch forward like a caterpillar. After a few minutes, one of the girls puts the things she wanted to buy back onto the shelves and leaves the store in a hurry. I wonder if she’s trying to catch the train, just like me.

To my relief, a second employee soon comes out of the back room and takes up a position at another cash register. Now the line starts moving, and before long I’m pushing my way out the door, stuffing my groceries into my backpack. I make a panicked run for the station. And when I get there, it turns out that the train hasn’t even arrived yet! Just my luck. I mean, I’m certainly lucky, but I’m also not, if you know what I mean. All the time I spent worrying, all the energy I spent running… This kind of thing annoys me. If I’m late, let me be late, you know?

Just as I thought, the girl from the convenience store is at the station too. She’s standing near an empty bench but not sitting on it. I sit at a different bench, a little farther away, and glance at her curiously. Her hair, dyed a light blonde, comes down to an inch or two below her shoulders, and she’s wearing a nice dark blue button-up shirt and shorts. She looks calm and collected, professional, I guess – like she’s got a handle on herself that most people our age don’t have. She’s lowered her backpack to her feet, and she just stands there, gazing at the train tracks, waiting patiently. She’s pretty attractive to me, so I can’t help but look over at her once in a while. I wonder if she goes to my school.

The minutes tick by. I start to imagine what must have happened to the train: it derailed, it hit someone on the tracks, a passenger died, the driver had a heart attack… the list goes on. It’s incredibly rare for the train to be late, and I mean rare as in “never happened once in my life.” But none of my fantasies seem to match up with reality. The train smoothly pulls up to the station ten minutes behind schedule, and all the people waiting get on board, myself and the girl included.

This route is heading out of the city, in a somewhat unusual direction, so the train isn’t crowded. I crash in a window seat, and the girl sits in my same row but on the other side. I take out my milk, open the carton, and take a few careful sips as we pull out of the station. I know some people get disgusted at drinking milk straight from the carton, but I could never understand why. It’s not dirty, and besides, not using a cup saves water. I satisfy my thirst and put the milk back into my backpack.

The ride will take forty minutes. I realize I should text my mother to tell her that the train was late, so I pull out my phone and craft a heavily apologetic message. Just as I’m about to send it, my battery dies. I curse in my head, put my phone away, and imagine the beating I’m going to get once I arrive home.

Well, just imagining won’t do anything, right? Looking for something to distract myself, I take out a book from my backpack that I’d just borrowed at the school library the day before, and I settle in and start to read. Outside my window, the city edge zips by in incoherent flashes. The train hums along, steady and soothing. I lose myself in the book quite happily.

Some twenty minutes later, as I’m busily turning pages, I hear the girl across from me take a phone call. In the back of my mind I make a sharp retort – people who take calls on the train irritate me – but I can’t really get mad at her. I finish a chapter of my book and start another one, and all the while the girl speaks softly in the background.

And then, it happens. I’m still lost in my book, but in the corner of my eye I see the girl swiftly opening her backpack. She takes out a notepad and a pen, and starts scribbling something on it very urgently – she’s left-handed, I notice – while simultaneously maintaining her phone conversation. Then she stands, crosses the aisle, and waves the notepad at me.

I lower my book and look at her, startled. I hadn’t been listening to her at all, but now I hear her saying into her phone over and over again, “It’s okay, you’re alright, just keep talking to me, talk to me, let’s talk.” She waves the notepad at me again, her eyes wide, fierce, and frightened all at once. I look at what she’d written on it.

call the police my friend is going to kill herself

I drop my book immediately and stand up, feeling anxiety and fear starting to rise in my stomach. What? My phone is dead, I can’t, and besides what would I say… The girl waves the note in my face again, bold and insistent and terrified. I nod at her and look around. There’s one other person in our car, a middle-aged woman listening to music through her headphones. Motioning the girl out of the aisle, I take her notepad, go over to the woman, and tap her on the shoulder.

The woman looks at me, annoyed, and pulls out her headphones. “What?” she asks. Her voice is really deep, and it rattles my anxiety even more. I shake out of it.

“Please, I need your phone, it’s an emergency,” I say, showing her the notepad. I gesture at the girl behind me, still talking to her friend in desperate but calm-coated tones. “I’ll give it right back, I promise, I just need to make this call, my phone is dead…”

The woman doesn’t say another word. She hands me her phone immediately, and I thank her. I head back towards the girl while dialing the police.

A female dispatcher answers after two rings. “Hello, what’s your emergency?”

“This girl on my train is on a call with her friend who she says is about to commit suicide,” I blurt out.

“What is this friend’s name?” the dispatcher asks.

“What’s her name?” I hiss across the aisle.

The girl scribbles it on the notepad, and I read it aloud.

“Okay, and where is she?”

“Where is she?” I whisper.

The girl starts to write down an address, slowly, struggling to remember. The whole time she’s still saying into her phone, “Yes. Uh-huh. Tell me more, love. Keep talking with me.”

She finishes writing, looks over it a little skeptically, adds a question mark, and extends a hand to show it to me. I start reading it to the dispatcher: “Seven, two, four …”

In that instant our train driver slams on the brakes with a screeching wail. Before I know it we’re flying through the air, frail human bodies rising on clouds of sparks and flame, sprays of shattered glass and cell phones, and the last thing I see is the girl’s notepad, held by no one, written on for nothing, and I close my eyes.

Spirit Dreams at Midnight: A Short Story

It was a humid summer night. A young woman sat at the edge of a small wooden dock, dangling her long legs into the lake. The deep blue water around her shimmered beautifully in the light of the waning moon, but several large, spontaneous ripples on its surface gave it more of a threatening image, as if dangerous beasts were lurking below. Gazing into the watery depths, the young woman was calm and still.

There were two minutes to midnight.

Her name was Chinami, and she was an orphan. From the beginning of her life, she had been completely and utterly alone. Nobody cared about her, nobody wanted her, nobody loved her. Yet, somehow, she loved herself. She was one of those people who were perfectly content in their solitude, and despite the tragedy of her background, she was happy.

She was happy – but she didn’t know why she was here.

Existential questions had plagued her all her life. Sitting in the darkness, isolated in her own little world, she had spent years wondering why she was even alive, and what for. But tonight her question was not philosophical or conceptual at all – it was a very real, very solid sense of tangible unawareness. She had no idea what she was doing, sitting here at the edge of a wooden dock, staring into a dark blue lake. She didn’t know how she had gotten here, or what she had been doing before. In fact, she had no memory of the past six hours. But Chinami didn’t let this bother her. She simply sat there, gazing at the surface of the lake, waiting in silence for midnight to arrive, because it seemed like the right thing to do.

It was the time of night when everything takes on a slightly hazy appearance. The area around the lake was lit only by the moon and stars above, and this gave the forested shore opposite Chinami a haunted, foreboding look. The trees reached their branches out of the darkness, stabbing towards the suspicious ripples on the lake surface. Chinami, unperturbed, studied the water and thought of nothing.

The heavy gray calmness of the scene around her suddenly made her yawn. She hadn’t seemed tired before, but now she looked as if she’d fall asleep right there if given the chance. Hovering on the edge of consciousness, Chinami blinked slowly and sighed.

Midnight came and went, and soon another young woman joined her. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, the newcomer looked around for a moment and then walked slowly down the dock towards Chinami. She was limping slightly, as if her right leg was giving her pain, but she didn’t seem to be conscious of it. She walked right to the edge of the dock, stood to Chinami’s left, and peered into the water below.

“Hello,” Chinami said sleepily.

“Hello,” said the newcomer. “Excuse me, but could you tell me where I am? I think I’m lost…”

Chinami shook her head. “You aren’t lost,” she said with tired certainty. It was an unexplainable feeling, but she knew somehow that this young woman was exactly where she was supposed to be.

The newcomer blinked. “Okay…”

Chinami yawned again and then invited the woman to sit down. “What’s your name?”

“Akira.”

“That’s a nice name,” Chinami said politely.

“Thanks.”

Mimicking her neighbor, Akira sat at the edge of the dock, took off her socks and shoes, and swung her legs over and into the water. The lake water was sharp and cold, and she flinched slightly at first contact, but soon acclimated.

“So what is this place?” Akira asked after a minute.

“I don’t know,” Chinami replied. “It’s a lake.”

“A lake, huh… in the middle of nowhere?”

Akira furrowed her brow slightly. She seemed to be trying to remember something, but whatever it is lurked just beyond her grasp. She groaned in frustration.

“It’s not in the middle of nowhere,” Chinami objected. Her voice was the slow, syrupy voice of a person struggling to stay awake. “That’s impossible… Everything has to be in the middle of somewhere. Nothing exists in a vacuum.”

Despite her apparent amnesia, Akira’s mind was still sharp. She followed her companion’s logic with ease and countered it with her own. “Right, but you don’t know where that somewhere is, and neither do I, so it might as well be nowhere to us.”

Chinami nodded sleepily. “I guess.”

“I don’t remember how I got here,” Akira admitted. “Do you?”

“No,” Chinami said. “What’s the last thing that you remember?”

Akira stared out at the surface of the lake. “Some fool ran a red light and crashed into my car.”

She looked at Chinami and laughed. “The world is full of idiots. Humans are remarkably stupid. I can’t get over it.”

Chinami was alarmed. “Somebody crashed into your car?”

“Yeah. What a jerk! He was speeding, too, and then he goes and runs a red light and crashes into another person’s car. You can’t do that! People die from crashes like that, it’s terrible. What if there’s a baby in the other car, or a dog, or even if it’s just a completely ordinary person, you can’t just go around speeding and ignoring traffic laws and crashing into people…”

Akira went on and on, railing at the stupidity of the driver who crashed into her car. Chinami drowned her out, staring towards the trees on the opposite shore, struggling to think. Something wasn’t right.

A minute later it came to her: Akira was dead.

Chinami sleepily worked this around in her mind. How interesting, she thought. I’m talking to a spirit!

“… that’s not okay,” Akira was saying adamantly. “You can’t go risking other people’s lives like that. I mean, if you’ve got a death wish, fine, go toy with your own already fragile existence. But you can’t drag other people down with you. That’s not right.”

Chinami suppressed another yawn. “That’s not right,” she agreed. “So what happened after she crashed into you?”

“I don’t really remember, but I know one thing for sure: tomorrow, I’m going to hunt her down and give her a stern talking-to. If she’s still alive, that is. I’m not sure if she is, but hey, at least it’s definitely not my fault. Her relatives can’t sue me or anything, right? But man, I have to get a new car, and that’s going to be expensive.”

“Yeah, expensive…”

So she doesn’t know that she’s dead?

Chinami let this thought linger in her mind. She wondered if it was her place to tell Akira that she was dead, or if she should just let Akira go on believing she was still alive. It was very strange. She had never talked with a spirit before, much less a spirit who wasn’t self-aware.

Akira was staring at the strange, spontaneous ripples that kept appearing on the lake surface. “Hey, do you think there’s demons in the water?”

“Demons?” Chinami shook her head. “Lake spirits, maybe. Water dragons.”

“Water dragons? I thought such spirits can’t be seen in the world of the living…”

She was trying hard to think. A minute later and her mind would connect the dots. Suddenly inspired by an urge to protect Akira’s innocence, Chinami lied, “Some can.”

Akira seemed to relax. “Really? That’s neat.”

“Yeah.”

“The moon is pretty…”

Chinami smiled a little, looking up at the night sky. “So it is. It’s waning.”

“How do you know?”

“It looks like a letter C. When it’s like that, you can tell that it’s waning.”

Akira squinted at the waning moon. “Oh… that’s cool, I didn’t know that.”

“People don’t pay enough attention,” Chinami murmured sleepily. “We see the moon wax and wane every month, but we don’t really look at it closely enough to notice patterns like this.”

For a moment Akira was quiet. Then she announced, “I have a question.”

Chinami fought to keep from nodding off. “Okay. What’s your question?”

“It’s not related to the waning moon,” Akira said.

“Okay.”

“Do you think dead people dream?”

Chinami looked at her with surprise. “What makes you ask that?”

“Nothing, the question just popped into my head for some reason…” Akira sighed. She looked very confused.

Chinami thought about it for a minute. “Hmm, I don’t know. I guess spirits can have dreams. Why not?”

“Why not,” Akira agreed. “When I’m dead, I want to be able to still have dreams. Otherwise it would be so boring… what’s life without a good dream now and then?”

“Well, when you’re dead, you don’t have life anymore…”

“Fine, but death would be boring without dreams too, don’t you think?” Akira seemed very adamant about this, determined to make her point.

Chinami scratched her head. “Sorry, I think I’m too sleepy to follow…”

Akira laughed. “Well, it’s past midnight. It’s about time to go to bed.”

“There aren’t any beds,” Chinami said. “I might just fall asleep right here.”

“Be my guest,” replied Akira. “Maybe I’ll join you.”

“Join me in my dream?”

Akira laughed again. “Why not?”

Chinami lay back on the dock and spent a minute trying to get into a comfortable position. After a while Akira lay down next to her. The two women gazed up at the moon, enchanted by its yellow-white light.

Akira murmured, “It’s so pretty here…”

Together, they slowly drifted off to sleep, and the night wore on without them.

Songs Without End: A Short Story

The musician arrived on the day of the first autumn rain.

He wore a faded blue t-shirt, olive green cargo shorts, and an old pair of running shoes. His hair was brownish and flowed down to his shoulders in slight curls, and with that as well as his slim shoulders, he might have passed for a girl. He was just a few inches taller than me, and his fingers were long, slender, and graceful. He looked to be about college-age, but his deep, dark eyes reflected an almost tragic maturity that few college students carried. Slung over his shoulder was a black guitar case.

I watched as he climbed down the stairs to the cove. Given his youth, he took an unusually long time, holding onto the side railing and stepping with slow care. Halfway down he paused and leaned against the railing with his back to me, as if he was staring into the weeds below. He stayed in that position for a while, apparently resting, and then continued down to the beach. Once he was on the sand, he stood still for a moment and looked around, and then he saw me nestled on my towel on the other side of the cove.

I must have looked strange to him, laying there surrounded by textbooks, notebooks, and worksheets. My first round of exams was coming up, so after school everyday I came down here to study by the sea. I didn’t have any close friends to speak of, and my parents didn’t want me at home, so I basically spent all my free time at the beach. I would read the lessons, make clean copies of my notes, and fill out the worksheets to the best of my ability. When I finished, I’d sit back, put my headphones in, and listen to rock music while watching the waves crawl into shore. Sometimes I’d fall asleep like that. If I got hungry or thirsty I would climb the stairs, cross the street, and go into the local convenience store to buy bread or milk. Every day saw exactly the same routine play out; these were the limits of my life.

So, when the musician arrived, I was understandably deeply curious. The town I lived in was small and familiar, and I knew with one hundred percent certainty that the musician wasn’t a local. He was a stranger, a newcomer, and that interested me. I had so many questions: Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he come here, of all places? And why was he alone? I was dying to know, but too afraid to ask.

When he saw me he gave a shy, polite nod and started to walk over. I closed my textbook and stood up. Watching him approach, I again noted his manner of walking — very slow, very deliberate, but he didn’t seem to be injured in any way. Once he was within several feet of me he said in a thin, quiet voice, “Hello, would it bother you if I play some music here?”

He spoke in the formal manner, which surprised me, because I was clearly his junior. I replied in a respectful tone, “I don’t mind.”

He smiled, thanked me, and walked over to one of the wooden benches lining the back of the cove. There he took off his guitar case. He set it down very gently and took his time taking the instrument out. I sat back on my beach towel and watched as he struck a few chords, warming up his fingers.

After several minutes he sat down on the bench and started to play, gazing down at the strings with his face shadowed by the setting sun. I listened carefully, but I didn’t recognize the song at all. It didn’t seem to have much melody; it sounded like it was missing some thing — other instruments, or a singer, maybe. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that he was an amazing guitarist. His fingers flew over fast passages with speed and accuracy, never missing a beat. I watched in admiration.

The piece lasted just a little over five minutes, and when it concluded I found myself longing for more. But the guitarist seemed exhausted. He rested the guitar on his knees, leaned back against the bench, and closed his eyes, breathing quick and strained. I wondered how it was that a musician with so much skill didn’t seem to have that much endurance. But then, I wasn’t a guitarist myself, so I didn’t really have any right to say that.

I watched him for a minute, and when it didn’t seem likely that he’d continue to play, I reopened my science textbook and tried to study some more. But I couldn’t seem to concentrate. My mind was fixed on the stranger guitarist and the empty piece he had played, trying to decipher the workings of his mind, of his music. I gave up studying, shut the book, and stared off into the hazy ocean-soaked horizon.

Some ten minutes later the musician stood up. Without looking at me or saying anything, he reached into his case, attached a shoulder strap to his guitar, and took off his shoes. Then he started strumming while slowly walking barefoot towards the sea. I watched with surprise, wondering what he was doing. The waves washed in and out, providing a soft, secondary rhythm to his song, and each time the water retreated towards the horizon it seemed to draw the musician with it. I had this irrational feeling that he was just going to keep walking and walking — that he’d walk into the depths of the ocean, still strumming his guitar, and he’d just never come back. For some reason, this fantasy had a strange appeal to it — but not for him. For myself.

To my odd disappointment, the musician stopped walking before the water came up to his knees. He continued to play, though, his head bent slightly over his guitar. He stood there with his back to me, playing this hauntingly beautiful piece to the spirits of the sea, and the low orange sun turned his figure into a fiery silhouette. Sitting there watching, there was something magical about it — I wondered, several times, if I was hallucinating.

When the piece finished he stood there quietly, unmoving, his guitar framed by the last golden rays of the night. And, as if on cue, it started to rain. I raised my face with startled delight to the herald of fall. It was a soft, misty, thoughtful kind of rain — the kind that brought the promise of beginnings as well as endings, of the world coming full circle, of the flow of time transforming into something new. I closed my eyes, savoring the feeling — I’d been waiting for this for months. Abruptly a thought occurred to me and I bolted upright, scrambling to cover up my books and notes before they got too damp.

By the time I’d gotten my school things covered, the musician had already put away his guitar. He looked over at me and said politely, quietly, “I’ll be going now.” And without waiting for a response, he turned and walked off. Seated in the misty rain, I watched as he slowly made his way up the stairs and disappeared from my sight.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had all been a dream. But these two sudden, fantastical interruptions to my daily routine intertwined themselves in my mind until they were completely and utterly inseparable. The appearance of the musician and the arrival of the rain couldn’t possibly be connected. Could it?


After school the next day I rushed to the beach. Normally I would take the long way around, swinging casually through several side streets and local shops, but I was so fixated on the mysterious musician that I hurried straight down to the cove. And when I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that he was already there.

Sitting at his wooden bench, he wore a light pink-and-white striped shirt and the same kind of shorts as the day before. His guitar case lay beside him, but what was in his hands wasn’t a guitar. I shuffled through the sand towards him wonderingly, and as soon as I was close enough to see what it was I blurted my thoughts out in rude surprise.

“Is that a violin?”

He looked at me and smiled, slow and kind. “Yes, it’s a violin,” he said in his soft voice. “Have you ever played before?”

I shook my head. “No. I haven’t played guitar, either. But there are some violinists I like listening to. Mostly I listen to rock bands, though.”

“Are you in high school?” he asked.

“Yes.” Encouraged by his polite friendliness, I said respectfully, “I’m Kishi Furukawa. What’s your name?”

“You can call me Ryū.”

“Ryū-san…” I began.

“Just Ryū,” he said. He indicated the spot on the bench next to him, and I sat down gratefully, lowering my heavy backpack to the sand.

“Ryū. Is that your stage name?”

He looked at me with surprise. “How did you know?”

“That first song you played yesterday sounded incomplete, like it needed another guitar and a singer to go along with it,” I replied. “I figured you were in a band or something.”

Ryū smiled. “Hey, you’re pretty smart. And you have an ear for music. You’re right, I used to be in a band with several of my schoolmates.”

“Not anymore?”

“I had to stop when I got sick.”

He studied me for a second. “Kishi,” he said with a sudden gravity, “I’m terminally ill. I’m sorry to throw this on you, but I came here to die.”

What? I shut my mouth abruptly, all of my previous excitement driven to a standstill. He was terminally ill? I didn’t quite understand.

As if to fill in the silence, Ryū stood up, picked up his violin and bow, and started to play. It was a short but dramatic song, with a certain wildness to it, but also a tinge of some melancholy air. At any other moment it would have sounded shockingly beautiful to me, but I could hardly listen. His words kept repeating in my head: I’m sorry to throw this on you, but I came here to die.

When the piece finished Ryū sat back down, drained. I watched him rest. He looked at me after a few minutes and smiled slowly. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Sixteen,” I replied.

He nodded. “That’s a good age. Just starting to figure out your place in the world, right?”

“I guess so.”

Ryū gazed into my eyes and blushed a little. “I turned eighteen last week,” he said. “Then I left the hospital. You know, I was supposed to die when I was your age. For some reason I’ve had two extra years… it’s strange. I should not be alive.”

I should not be alive. I didn’t know what to say. Nobody I was close to had ever died before, and I’d never known anyone with terminal illness or anything close to it. I felt very strange in the presence of this musician who seemed to live his life waiting for death to claim him.

“So you don’t play any instruments?” he asked, kindly changing the subject.

“I wish,” I said. “I really like your music, by the way.”

He blushed again. “Thank you, I’m glad.”

“What position did you play in your band?”

“The other four members all had static positions: vocalist, drummer, bassist, lead guitarist. Me, I was all over the place. Normally I would be credited as rhythm guitarist, but I would also play violin, I would play piano, sometimes even the flute.”

He saw the surprised look on my face and started to laugh. “At the time we didn’t really fit any specific genre of music,” he explained. “Our style was just everything. We would cover popular songs we liked, and we would also make our own. We would play at school events, and in local cafes, and out on the street some nights, and for some reason people liked our music. We were so young, just barely high schoolers, and we were already pretty famous in our town. We made arrangements to play in the city and became well-known there too. That’s when I got sick.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Little town not too far from Sendai.”

“Sendai… I’ve never been.”

He smiled. “You should go sometime. It’s beautiful. Lots of green, lots of rain. You’ve always lived here?”

“Yes. I want to get out, though, as soon as I’m free. My family doesn’t want me, and I’m tired of being stuck in this place.”

“Well then, why wait?”

I thought he was joking, but he just gazed back at me with sparkling dark eyes.

“Life is short, right?” he said. “If you don’t want to live here, then don’t. Get on a train and go.”

“Is that what you did?”

Ryū smiled again. “Something like it. I wanted to die in a place where no one knew of me, where no one would care about my death and no one would remember me afterwards. So I left the hospital and got on a train. I caused a big fuss, you know. All the doctors thought I was giving up. But I was really tired of all the knives and needles and chemicals that just made me feel worse. I made them give me a letter and this wristband before I left.”

He extended his right arm to show me the wristband, a thin bright orange slip. “It means that if the police or paramedics find me, they are not allowed to try to save my life. Probably they can’t do anything anyway, but I feel like I’ve had enough extra time. I don’t think I should be trying to get any more.”

“What about your parents?” I asked. “They just let you go?”

He shook his head. “They’re both dead. Ironic, right? I’m the child, and I’m the one who’s terminally ill, but my perfectly healthy mothers died before me. I lost one in a car accident when I was ten, the other in the big earthquake that happened last year.”

He gave me a sideways look and admitted, “Actually I almost died in that earthquake too. There was a fire in the hospital. It’s very strange, I have this illness that is slowly killing me, but there are so many other ways I can die… I think about that a lot.”

Something about that struck me. Everything about Ryū screamed death, and yet, somehow, he seemed more alive than anyone I’d ever met. This apparent contradiction was a mystery to me. It was hard to bear, and even harder to understand.

Seeing the look on my face, Ryū changed the subject again. He unzipped his guitar case and said affectionately, “You said you listen to rock bands, right? You have a favorite? A band, a singer, a song?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Do you know Rose of Pain?”

He smiled, nodded. “Sing, okay?” he said. “I bet you know the lyrics.”

I blushed. “Well, yeah, but I don’t really sing…”

“If you don’t want to sing, at least hum the melody line. Music is communal. Two people is better than one.” He lifted the guitar up on his leg and struck a chord. “Here we go, let’s go.”

He tapped out the beat, one measure for free, and started to play. Slightly self-conscious, I hummed along with him. Before long I realized I was too soft to hear over the guitar, so I opened my mouth and started vocalizing without lyrics. When I did this Ryū glanced at me and grinned, happy and free, and before I knew it, before I even realized what I was doing, I began to sing.

「黒い瞳の奥神秘に満ちた微笑みを 浮かべる /
悲鳴とともに流れる 苦しみを見つめて…」

By the end of the piece I was thoroughly out of breath, and so was he. He struck the final chord one note at a time, stringing out the beauty of the sound, and then it was over.

With the sudden absence of the music, the waves crashing onto the sand before us seemed shockingly loud.

Ryū set his guitar down, rested his hands on his thighs, and fought for air. He didn’t even try to hide it from me. I watched with concern, quieting my own breathing. I wondered if he really shouldn’t be playing at all.

After a few minutes, he seemed to feel better. He looked over at me and said softly, almost apologetically, “I don’t breathe so well anymore. And I get tired really easily.”

“That’s okay,” I said. Immediately I gave myself a mental kick: what kind of a response is that? He’s dying, you idiot. But Ryū didn’t seem to notice or care.

“That was fun, right?” he said, smiling a little.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “This song sounds pretty good on acoustic.”

“It was more beautiful than I had imagined.”

“That was your first time playing it?” I asked, shocked.

“Yup, first time. I had a lot of free time in the hospital, so I just memorized a lot of sheet music. I forgot a couple of the chords, though, but you – you stayed strong the whole way through.”

“Oh, well…” I blushed.

Ryū smiled at me again, eyes sparkling. “You’re a pretty good singer, you know.”

I grinned in my embarrassment. “The original was better.”

He shrugged, leaned back against the bench, and turned his gaze to the sea. “It’s a different style of music, professional and casual. Can’t be compared. I think that’s what I loved the most about my old band – we valued both styles equally. Maybe that’s why people liked us so much… maybe it’s the reason they’re famous now, too.”

“Are you jealous?” I asked curiously. “That they’re famous, I mean.”

He shook his head slightly. “When I see video of their live concerts, of course I wish I could be on stage playing with them. But there are no bad feelings between us. Life just put us on a different path. I’m glad that they didn’t stop their careers waiting for me to get better. If they did that, they probably wouldn’t exist today. See, Kishi, sometimes good things initially manifest as bad things, and sometimes bad things initially manifest as good things, and you can’t really tell which is which. So when it comes to life as a whole, the best you can do is just accept anything that comes to you, and keep moving forward.”

“I wish my teachers and classmates were as smart as you are,” I said honestly. “Everything they say is so empty and boring, and here you are talking about the best way to live.”

This made him laugh a little. “Well, everyone is different, you know? Most people eventually learn how best they should live, but some people learn it when they’re sixteen and others learn it when they’re sixty. That’s just how it is.”

He brushed a hand through his hair then, somewhat absentmindedly. “By the way, your voice reminds me of the vocalist in my old band.”

“Really?”

“Maybe it’s just because I miss him… but no, I think you really do sound like him when he was around your age. He could really project… he was amazing, very heartfelt. When he sang a sad or emotional song, you could really feel his pain, even though he was just a kid. We were all just kids…”

At this point, Ryū seemed to be in a reminiscent kind of mood, so I decided to limit my responses to subtle nods and appropriate I’m listening noises. I wanted to let him talk because it seemed like he needed to, but I also selfishly wanted to get my questions about him answered. I shut my mouth and made myself an attentive audience to his story.

Without looking at me, Ryū gave a slight, misty smile. “It’s funny, I’m talking about our vocalist in the past tense, even though he’s currently one of the most famous singers in the country… Anyway, I miss him a lot. He was our band leader, you know, and he was great at leading because he had such a good feeling for people. He always made sure to listen to us. Whenever there was a decision to make, he would talk to each of us separately, and he’d ask us our opinions. And after hearing all of our thoughts, he would make his decision based on that. Sometimes it would be contrary to what we wanted, but it always worked out for the best, because he could tell that we were being too passionate or too excited or too angry, and he would tone us down.”

Ryū paused a moment to see if I would respond, and when I didn’t he slowly, quietly continued on. “A month after I got sick, after the shock had worn off and we had all basically accepted that I was going to die, he called us all in for a little meeting in my hospital room. Imagine it — a bunch of sixteen year-old amateurs, sitting around a hospital bed, trying to plan their future. He looked at me and said, tell me what you want to do. And I said, I want to keep playing. So they all supported me in trying to keep playing. A few weeks later we had a pretty big concert at a venue in the city — small, actually, but big for our standards at the time. I went, and I played, and I almost killed myself. I collapsed on stage, and they had to call an ambulance to take me to the hospital. Then a couple days later our vocalist called another little meeting, and he looked at me and again he said, tell me what you want to do. And I knew he would support me, no matter what I said. They were all ready to follow me, to care for me, to put their potential careers aside for me. And it was because of that that I chose to leave the band. I looked at him and I said, I quit. I said, find another rhythm guitarist and go be famous. So that’s what they did.”

He sighed a little. “Heck of a background story, right? Sixteen years old…”

All of this talking seemed to be wearing him out; he let his sentence trail off and closed his eyes. Scared, I quickly blurted out, “Thank you.”

He raised his head and looked at me with surprise. “Thank you for what?”

“For telling me all of that.”

“Oh…” Ryū shut his eyes again. “You’re welcome, Kishi, but I really shouldn’t have.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Why not?”

“What is it, the illness that you have?”

He blinked, as if the question had thrown him off guard. “There isn’t any name for it,” he said after a moment. “That surprises you, right? You would think there are names for all the things out there that can kill you. But no, there isn’t one for this.”

I tried to wrap my head around this idea, but I couldn’t imagine it, living with a nameless disease.

“It used to frustrate me a lot,” Ryū admitted tiredly. “It’s not like I want to have cancer or anything, but I want to be able to put a name to why I’m hurting, you know? I became very close with one of my doctors, and I would talk to her about this all the time…”

He trailed off and closed his eyes. I bit my lips and watched him breathe, regretting asking the question in the first place, but at the same time desperate to hear an explanation.

A couple of minutes later Ryū continued, “My doctor says that while it hasn’t been scientifically observed, she has felt that rates of such unnamed diseases and chronic conditions have been on the rise. You can see this everywhere… people are complaining about all of these unexplainable aches and pains, and we have no idea how to make them feel better.”

“There’s this kid at school who throws up all the time,” I recalled.

Ryū nodded. “Things like that. My doctor posited two explanations for this… First of all, western medicine has taken over much of the world, but she believes that it’s very one-sided. It’s based on treatment with – as I said – knives and needles and chemicals, and it labels anything different as pseudo-science.”

“Like acupuncture?”

“Yes. Traditional medicine. Anything non-Western, they’ll say is scientifically unproven, a hoax – but just think about it… Societies have been around for hundreds of years practicing traditional medicine. Would they really still be doing it if it didn’t work for them? Anyway, her point was that western medicine is flawed, and maybe that’s one reason why everybody is so uncontrollably sick.”

He paused, took a big breath, and went on, “She also pointed to all the toxins and chemicals we humans are putting into the environment. We come into contact with them, and we eat the animals that come into contact with them, and the toxins slowly build up in our bodies and cause problems we don’t know how to fix.”

I thought about it. “That makes a lot of sense to me,” I said.

“Yeah… me too.” Then, very abruptly, he said, “Kishi, get out of here.

The remark shocked me; I looked straight at him, terrified. His face was kind of pale now, and his voice had been steadily decreasing in strength. I asked with genuine concern, “Ryū, are you okay?” Then I mentally kicked myself again. Of course he’s not okay!

“I’m tired…”

He let the sentence linger and closed his eyes.

I had more questions – I was still curious – but this time I clamped my mouth shut. He really didn’t look well. I watched him with care, trying to tell if he was in pain, but all I could see was that it was clearly costing him effort to breathe. Something about the very idea of that scared me. Breathing – something normally so effortless, so completely mindless, yet so essential to life. And here Ryū was struggling to do it.

It suddenly occurred to me that he might die here.

I turned my gaze to the ocean, trying to process this. The idea tore at my heart. I’d only known Ryū for two days, but I already admired him so much, and he had been so friendly to me… And it all just seemed so unfair. Why did he have to die? Why did he have to be handed this illness? He deserved so much to become famous with the rest of his band, and yet here he was, alone on this beach, dying.

Wait. No… he’s not alone.

If he’s going to die, I’ll be here for him, I decided. I’ll stay. Even if it hurts me to watch, I’ll stay. I’ll forget about my exams, I’ll skip classes. Today, tomorrow… however long.

Having made this pact I turned to look at him; his breathing, though still uneasy, had smoothed over into the heavy rhythm of sleep. The sea breeze had blown some of his long hair over his face. I watched him, thinking, feeling, trying not to feel.

The steady crash of the waves onto shore calmed me – after a few minutes I relaxed. Believing Ryū was not in any danger of dying at this present moment, I turned away and closed my eyes.

And without meaning to, rocked by the push and pull of the sea, I too fell asleep.

I never saw the musician again.

I woke up from my nap some thirty minutes later to the feel of a misty rain on my face and a sense of emptiness beside me. I bolted upright, panicking. Ryū was gone. He’d taken his violin with him, but he had left his guitar on the sand.

For the next few days I waited on the beach for him to return. I skipped my classes and just sat there, staring out at the sea, listening to the same old rock music through my headphones. I kept hoping and hoping he would come back – but he never did.

And if I really thought about it, I knew why.

I wanted to die in a place where no one knew of me, where no one would care about my death and no one would remember me afterwards…

I replayed our conversations over and over in my head. I picked through his words, focusing on whatever had stood out to me in the moment. And I cried.

Kishi, I’m sorry to throw this on you, but I came here to die, he said.

I should not be alive, he said.

Life is short, right? he said.

Kishi, get out of here.

A week after Ryū had gone, I slung his guitar on my back, boarded a train, and left for Sendai.

Life Beyond the Setting Sun: A Short Story

The tales speak of a strange phenomenon where the shadow of a person who has loved deeply throughout their lifetime may on the day of their death wander the earth until the disappearance of the setting sun. Of those tales, the one below is, in my opinion, the most convincing.


Last year, the first Monday of April, at roughly eight o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on my balcony enjoying a leisurely breakfast when the call came. I picked up, irritated – I don’t like being disturbed on my days off – and asked who it was. “I need you to come over to Bren’s place,” the voice said without any introduction. It was our manager. I said fine, hung up, and sat there for another half hour finishing my cereal.

Looking back I can hear the pain in her voice – or maybe that’s just reconstructive fantasy. Whatever the case may be, I didn’t think anything was wrong that morning. I had no idea that my life was changing right before me, totally spinning out of control, everything I had built in the past fifteen years completely falling apart. I thought that I had all the time in the world – and so I sat there, eating cereal, rereading my favorite book, savoring a cup of coffee, while my partner hanged himself.

People in our line of work commit suicide all the time, but you don’t hear about it. I’d never imagined Brennan would, but in a strange, retrospective way, I’m not surprised. There’s more to us than you think. 

When I got to his apartment the police and paramedics were already there. Even at that point I had no idea of the tragedy that had befallen us. Some of our younger colleagues were there too, standing outside the building, and when they saw me they started to stare with faces full of horror, grief, and pity. None of them spoke to me, and I got irritated with them because I thought they were being disrespectful. Then I pushed past the police line and went up the stairs to Brennan’s room. The door was closed, guarded by a pair of stoic policemen, and Kiara, our manager, was standing outside.

I think that at that point I knew. I saw the look on her face and this horrible feeling started forming in my gut; my chest tightened and for a moment I couldn’t speak. She stared at me with tear-filled eyes, said hoarsely, “Henry, I don’t think you want to go in there.” 

Of course I went in. How could I not?

I don’t think words can even convey everything I felt that day. We’ve known each other since first grade, Brennan and I, and we’d entered this business together straight out of high school. We pulled each other through the first few years of scarce work and low pay. At one point he paid the rent for my apartment, and another time I bought him dinner for two weeks straight. After that, because of some immensely kind senior colleagues and Kiara’s hard work, we were able to make it. The next ten years went by in a flash. Our popularity wasn’t always steady, but for the most part, we survived – or at least I thought we had. Clearly, I was mistaken.

You know, we didn’t always have the greatest relationship. It’s hard to work with the same person, to see them almost every day, for years and years on end. We got angry with each other at times. But we also cared for each other more deeply than most people realize. I was best man at his wedding, and became godfather to his kids. When his wife died of cancer I cried an ocean and then spent a couple of weeks practically camping out at his place, helping take care of his daughters. He was also the first person I came out to about being gay, and the reaction I got from him was the most loving and supportive one I’ve ever received. Honestly, I don’t know who I would be or where I would have ended up if I had never met him. That morning, standing in the middle of his living room, I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it – and that’s why afternoon found me once again at the edge of my balcony. Sitting on the rails, staring out into the self-manufactured darkness, I was in that moment utterly devoid of thought or feeling. Of course I hadn’t really “planned” this – I think most people don’t – but whatever the case may be, I was completely ready to die. I was just waiting for the right moment to do it. 

And that’s when he appeared.

I thought I was hallucinating. He stood a little to my left, leaning forward with his hands on the railing – not a ghost but a silhouette, a dark gray shadow with depth and form, at once both faceless and recognizable. When he spoke his voice was deeper and more full-throated than when I’d known him in life. With a slight tinge of anger he warned me, “Don’t you dare.”

I choked. “Bren?”

“I didn’t kill myself just for you to follow me, idiot,” his shadow replied. “Get off there.”

I swung my legs back over and joined him on the safe side of the railing. “How…”

“Listen, Henry,” he said abruptly. “When the sun sets, I have to go. I just came to ask you to take care of my kids.”

I swallowed hard, still trying to comprehend what was happening. “Wait,” I managed to say. “What?”

He shifted so that his face – or what would have been his face – was looking my direction. “Take care of my kids,” he repeated, and this time he really did seem angry. In all the years I’d known him he had never spoken with such force. And it worked – I couldn’t refuse. I mumbled some kind of agreement, and from then on, knowing he had guaranteed my life, he seemed to relax. 

I stood still for a minute, trying to form my thoughts. It was a good thing that I had already cried my heart out that morning, because now there were no tears to break my voice. I asked slowly, “Why’d you do it?”

“You of all people know why.”

“No, that’s not … I meant, why did you leave me? And your kids? Why now, without any warning?”

His shadow rippled with gentle, sorrowful laughter. “If I warned you, you would have stopped me… And listen, you know, I got in too far, for myself and my family. I’ve been dealing with some dark things for years that I’d rather my children not have to be a part of. Look, don’t misunderstand. I love you and I love my kids and I love all the work we’ve done. But I couldn’t escape it, and in the end I think it’s better for you all that I move on. Don’t be angry with yourself, Henry. It is what it is. Just let me go.”

After that he refused to talk anymore about his death. Instead, standing together on the balcony watching the sun lower itself to the horizon, we reminisced for four hours about his life. We talked about the time we first met – sitting across from each other in the same first grade class – and about the time we mutually decided we weren’t going to attend college. We talked about his marriage, his wife and kids, and about my boyfriend and our plans for marriage. We talked about our work, the minute legacy we had left behind. We talked about all the beautiful things we had seen and done together, and all of the suffering we’d endured together, and what I thought the rest of my life would look like. Towards the end, as the red-orange sun hovered just above the horizon, I asked him, “Are you happy?”

He thought about it. After a minute he said carefully, “I’m not happy, but I am content. How about you?”

“I don’t know,” I started to say – and then darkness enveloped the world and he was gone.

And so it was. My partner died, and I lived.

Since then I’ve quit my job – I realized I couldn’t do the work without him – but I’ve found another one, relatively low-paying but simple and fulfilling. My boyfriend and I got married, and we adopted both of Brennan’s kids. Now we’re a happy family of four. I still think of Bren often, and time has not soothed the hurt, but in a way, I’ve found peace. 

As they say, life goes on.